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Remarks by Secretary Hagel at R.C.-South Troop Event, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
December 08, 2013

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: General, thank you, and good afternoon. Thank you.

I won't make you go through that again, but I did like that. Only a general can make you do that. I know that.

First, I want to tell you why I'm here. I'm here to thank you and to tell you how much we all appreciate what you're doing for our country -- the tremendously important work, impressive work that you've done, what you're doing now.

I want you to thank your families, tell your families how much we appreciate their sacrifices and their service and what they do.

Often families get left out of the equation. And you all know they are the -- the anchor and they're the centerpiece of everyone's lives.

I bring you greetings from President Obama, holiday greetings. This is a difficult time, I know, as we get into the holidays, being away from home and being disconnected from your families and your loved ones. But he asked me to also convey his deep appreciation for your work, also his and our pride in what you do, and each of you.

I had an opportunity in the last couple hours to meet with your commanders and your senior enlisted here, hear in these provinces. And then I just met with some of the leadership of the province as well, had a good opportunity to exchange thoughts.

I wanted to hear from General Hamid and others on what they think.

This is a very difficult time to be here. I know that. We all know that. Not just because of the difficult work, the important work, but the uncertainty of what happens next.

And I know you all follow that. And I want to address that, because you deserve to know what's going on. And I'm gonna, here in a few minutes, ask for questions, any questions that you want to ask me, on any subject, I'll be glad to respond, or any advice you have for me.

But let me address this uncertainty. First, the United States -- and I conveyed this to the Afghan leaders who I just met with -- we want to continue to have a role, have a mission, as well as our [International Security Assistance Forces] partners, after 2014.

We think there is a role. We think we can continue to play an important role in helping the Afghan people build institutions to govern, so that they'll be able to have the capacity and capability to defend themselves, support themselves.

And that's what we want. That's what you all have been about. That's what you're doing now. That's what we've been here for -- the last 12 years -- as well as our ISAF partners.

So I made that very clear to them.

But we can't do that, our ISAF partners can't do that, unless we -- we have an agreement, a formal agreement, in this case, it's the bilateral security agreement, that needs to be signed by the leader of this sovereign nation, because it is their country.

If they -- the people of Afghanistan -- want us to continue to be involved with them, and help them for their future, they need to invite us in to their country. And that's as it should be. That's as it should be. And we agree with that.

So we talked about that. And I have hope that that bilateral security agreement will get signed so that we can continue our planning. I know our ISAF partners feel the same. And we continue to plan for a post-2014 mission here.

At the same time, as you all know, we are drawing down and completing this phase of our mission as we have withdrawn from our combat roles. And the Afghan forces are doing a remarkably good job in picking that up and conducting those missions on their own.

And it's because of what you have done to help them, and to build that kind of capacity and capability for them. And they know that. They understand that and they appreciate it.

As I came in from Bahrain yesterday, where I attended the Manama Dialogue, which is an exchange between all of the Gulf [Coordination Council] countries, as well as other nations around the world. This is also an uncertain time in the Gulf, a dangerous time in the world, in the Middle East, as it is here.

And we talked about Iran, what we're doing with Iran as well as our international partners in trying to engage a next step to get to some higher ground of resolving some of these big issues.

After I leave here, I'll go on to other countries as well.

But I particularly wanted to come here during this time, as I've been here all day today and got into Kabul yesterday, to thank you and, again, wish you happy holidays, to your families as well, and to recognize the good work that you do and let you know how much we appreciate it, and how proud we are, how very, very proud we are of you all and what you're doing.

So, questions? Any comments? Any thoughts? I understand we're going to have some time for pictures, which I appreciate. If you want to have your picture taken, I'd like to have my picture taken with you.

So, yes, sir?

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Chief Warrant Officer (Stanley ?), Nebraska Army National Guard, serving with -- (inaudible).

SEC. HAGEL: Well, you must be one of the smartest people here then, Nebraska National Guard.

(Laughter.)

QUESTION: (inaudible) -- sir.

(Laughter.)

SEC. HAGEL: Well, need I say more. I mean, that is complete unequivocal testament to your judgment.

(Laughter.)

QUESTION: (inaudible) -- from a state that is -- (inaudible) -- conservative, but now -- (inaudible).

My question to you is -- (inaudible) -- that U.S. federal revenue -- (inaudible). And Congress is spending $3.8 trillion a year, adding -- (inaudible) -- debt. Are the lieutenants and privates in this room, when they -- (inaudible) -- sergeant majors at risk of serving in the military with catastrophic budget cuts, to -- (inaudible) -- prevent default on our national debt -- (inaudible)?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, that's a Nebraska-like question.

(Laughter.)

Well, first, it's an important question, as everybody in this room knows, and thank you for asking it. Let me address it this way in the interest of time, if nothing else, because we could spend hours on that and the Congress continues to debate all that, as the American people do and should.

First, let's start with the reality of the -- the debt that we have in the United States. And it is the responsibility of our elected leaders to deal with these big issues. And as you noted some of the numbers, when the books don't balance, and in this case they haven't for some time, we continue to spend more than we take in.

That cuts to the bottom line of our national security because it is a vibrant, thriving, dynamic, versatile strong economy that anchors the nation's security. Because without that economy, we can't afford the best military in the history of man, like you all are. You're the best because, first of all, of who you are. You're the most talented, the best educated, the highest motivated. And you're the best trained. You're the best equipped. You're the best led of any military ever.

That requires resources. That requires a commitment from the nation. Are they willing to pay for that? Are they willing to get the best and the brightest? And compensate you for your sacrifices and the work that you do? So, the economy is -- is the baseline. And everything flows from that. And until we get some control of our spending, then we're going to continue to have to make not always smart decisions.

This takes us to sequestration specifically -- specifically, the cuts in the Defense Department budget. And you all know I think enough about that. We took about $34 billion in additional cuts last fiscal year. If sequestration stays on track and is not changed through a budget agreement that may or may not occur over the next two weeks, we're in line to take about a $52 billion additional cut this fiscal year.

This is the law of the land currently. And if sequestration would play out over that 10-year period, we would see a half-trillion in cuts. And that's on top of the $489 billion that was passed by Congress, to reduce the Defense Budget over the next 10 years.

So, that would -- all those cuts, if they didn't change, represent over a 10-year period a trillion dollar cut in the budget of -- of this department.

That suggests that some difficult choices would have to be made. Difficult choices are being made now, will continue to be made. But it also gives us some opportunity, if we can get out from under these huge sequestration numbers, to manage this.

The chiefs of all your services, the secretaries of your services, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, have all been working on this with me and my staff over the last 10 months. And it didn't just begin when I got here, because this has been ongoing for the last couple of years.

So we're gonna have to make some difficult choices. These are choices that we can manage. Our focus is gonna be on our people; always has been, on readiness, on combat power.

We're not gonna sacrifice any of those things. We will match our resources with our mission. We have prioritized that mission, as the president announced a couple of years ago, a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. That rebalance is not suggesting, nor is it implying nor is it a retreat from the rest of the world.

We're not retreating from the rest of the world. We are gonna continue to honor our commitments with our allies and our partners and our friends around the world in all the regions of the world.

Can we be managing this institution better and smarter? Yes. And we will. The chiefs have been drawing up plans how to do that. But we need some time to do that. We need to put in place over a period of time those changes.

But sequestration forces us into some bad, bad choices, because of the abruptness and the deepness of the cuts and the size of those cuts.

So we are going to continue to have the best fighting force in the world, regardless of all the machinations that are going on in Washington.

So I'm glad you asked the question. And I'm glad you noted that -- your Nebraska heritage.

Now, your parents' family still there?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

SEC. HAGEL: Where do they live?

QUESTION: Ralston, Nebraska, outside of Omaha.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I attended many Ralston Fourth of July parades.

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. And tell them hello and happy holidays.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir.

I'm Master Sergeant (Parks ?) from -- (inaudible) -- Fighter Group.

My question -- (inaudible). Every year, we are forced to spend up to our maximum budget because we're afraid to lose funding in the following year.

This has been identified as a significant source of waste as far back as the Johnson administration.

And -- (inaudible) -- budgeting process should know that. Pretty much everyone knows -- (inaudible).

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you.

I served in the United States Senate for 12 years, and I'm not unfamiliar with what you're saying across the government. This is not just an issue that -- that is unique to the Department of Defense. It's the way annual budgets work.

And, by the way, that's not justifying it, but at the end of that fiscal year, at the end of September, if you haven't spent your money, then the budget request for the next fiscal year, which is already being prepared, which is presented to Congress by the president, usually January or more likely February or March, requests more money for that program.

And, again, this is not justification for spending down anything, but it's not unique to the Department of Defense.

You're right. It is an irresponsible way to budget and to expend appropriations, whatever is left in your account, in the last 30 days get rid of it.

As a matter of fact, on that specific point, our comptroller, Bob Hale, because we were spending a lot of time on these kinds of issues -- spanning out over the last few months -- we specifically instructed our leaders throughout the Department of Defense not to go out and buy a bunch of products -- color televisions I think he used as an example -- just to expend all your funds in the account.

This gets into probably a little bit of the first question about our resources and our spending. But it also gets, I think, to another more specific issue, and that's how do we budget. You know, for many years I served on the Budget Committee for a couple of Congresses. We talked about the possibility of budgeting for almost every department beyond just annually.

If you could budget biannually or budget and commit for two or three years, versus each year, actually it would save resources. You could plan smarter and better, each department, if you didn't have to worry about each year “what am I going to get?” which forces some of this irresponsible behavior that you're referring to, if they had more time to plan, each institution.

So it's a big issue. And you're right to bring it up. And thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. HAGEL: OK. One quick question, and I'll give you a quick answer, and then we're going to do some photos, I think, and coins and I don't know what else. And I'll tell you a Santa Claus story or something if you've all been good. I know you have.

All right, again, thank you all. Proud of you. Happy holidays. Best to your families. Thank you for what you're doing. We're going to get through this. I know these are difficult times, but we're going to get through them.

Thank you. Thank you.

(Applause.)

-END-